The Jets head to Tennessee this Sunday for a showdown with the undefeated Titans. This marquee matchup comes at a good time for Gang Green. The ten day layoff from the Thursday night trip to Foxborough gave this team the time it needed to rest up and refocus coming off a confidence-building triumph. Now comes an opportunity to make another statement to the league in addition to allowing those repugnant 1972 Dolphins to sip champaigne once again.
The Titans are the last team standing that could possibly join the 1972 Dolphins among the ranks of undefeated teams in NFL history. This team lacks the star power, media attention, and overall talent level of last year's Patriots team. These guys probably do not have the firepower to make it through the gauntlet without slipping up once. However, this is a well-coached team that does not make mistakes. The Titans have to be considered the favorite to make it out of the AFC at this point. A win down in Tennessee would make the Jets legitimate contenders in almost everybody's eyes and give the club an outside chance of winning homefield advantage throughout the AFC Playoffs. Gang Green will likely be favored in its final five games so a win in this game could be a springboard for big things.
The Titans are led by Jeff Fisher, the most underrated coach in the game. As the years have progressed, the faces have changed in Tennessee, but Fisher has kept winning. His teams play tough, fundamentally sound football. There had been talk of him potentially leaving a few years back. The Titans would be crazy to ever let him go. They will never find a better football coach.
Tennessee has plenty of familiar faces. Center Kevin Mawae was a standout for the Jets from 1998 to 2005. He left as a salary cap casualty three years ago and still harbors resentment for Eric Mangini. Mawae felt like the new coach had it in for him. Mike Heimerdinger, the Titans offensive coordinator, has similar bitterness for this franchise. He coordinated New York's offense in 2005 for a very disappointing season. After Herman Edwards left for Kansas City, Mangini retained Heimerdinger as coordinator. Upset that he was passed over for the head job and that the Jets were acutally holding him to a contract he signed in good faith, Heimerdinger whined his way out of town through the press. He eventually landed on his feet in Denver before returning to Tennessee this season to take back the job he held before coming to the Jets. Justin McCareins is back in Tennessee also. After dropping more passes than he caught in four forgettable years with the Jets, the man for whom Gang Green traded a second round pick in 2004 to land is back in the South.
In the year of ageless quarterbacks, Kerry Collins has revived his career. Collins began the season as Vince Young's backup but has earned the starting job after an injury to Young in addition to bizarre off field troubles. Collins' numbers do not really jump off the page, but the perception he is a weak link is probably overblown. Collins is probably a victim teams like the Bears and Ravens having success despite their quarterbacking play. Fans and media members see a guy perceived as washed up and assume he is a game manager. However, he has come to life in the past few weeks and helped the Titans win a pair of games through the air. The guy can play quarterback. He was good enough to go in the top five of the Draft, take the Panthers to the NFC Championship Game, and take the Giants to the Super Bowl. The reason the Giants dumped him was not really his fault. The team just wanted a new start with Eli Manning. He then went to an impossible situation in Oakland, which damaged the perception of him. Collins may not be Drew Brees, but if he is the biggest liability on the team, Tennessee is in really good shape.
Tennessee's rushing attack sports a thunder and lightning combo of Lendale White and Chris Johnson. White is a bruiser between the tackles, while Johnson is a lightning quick receiving threat, with open field explosion comparable to that of Leon Washington. Mawae, Jake Scott, Michael Roos, David Stewart, and Eugene Amano have opened huge holes for the seventh best rushing attack in the league. They have also allowed a miniscule five sacks, giving Collins the time he needs.
While Justin Gage with a 17.4 average per reception and 4 touchdowns is a deep threat, the Titans lack consistent receiver play. That should have been evident in any offense in which Justin McCareins plays a prominent role, but only two receivers are on the team's top five list in receptions. Bo Scaife's 44 lead the team by 14, while Johnson's 30 put him second. Part of this has probably been due to the club's run first philosophy as the passing attack has come to life in the past two weeks when the Titans needed it to win. However,the Titans will not be able to exploit New York's dangerously thin cornerback corps the way the Patriots did a week ago.
It all begins up front for Tennessee's outstanding defense. Albert Haynesworth is a rock in the middle of the line. He is almost impossible to block one on one, as his 39 tackles and 7 sacks indicate. Tennessee should be getting its top defensive end, Kyle Vanden Bosch, back from injury for this game, but his replacements, Jacob Ford and Dave Ball, have 3 and 4 sacks in his place respectively. Ball is another former Jet. This pass rush has recorded a solid 28 sacks.
The Tennessee linebacking corps of Keith Bulluck, Stephen Tulloch, and David Thornton have helped to hold opponents to under 100 rushing yards per game. The secondary has forced 15 interceptions, despite sporting banged up corners Nick Harper and Reynaldo Hill. The Titans are sixth against the pass in the league.
Rob "My" Bironas has hit 18 of his 21 field goal attempts. Ageless wonder Craig Hentrich has a solid but unspectacular average of 43.1 yards per punt.
Key Matchup: Kris Jenkins vs. Kevin Mawae
This should bring back memories of Mawae's battles with Ted Washington in Buffalo. The Titans love to pound the football. The Jets are great at stopping the run. This matchup of strength against strength will be critical. If Mawae can get a push, Tennessee will open holes to control the football. If Jenkins handles Mawae, the Titans will have to double him, opening one on one matchups for other playmakers on the defense. Tennessee's linemen might be good enough to win those matchups, but the Jets cannot succeed without a big game from Jenkins.
Keys to Victory:
1. Safeties on Scaife: The tight end is Tennessee's top target. The Jets have a terrific group of linebackers, but tight ends have shredded them in coverage this year. This team needs to use its safeties to handle Scaife. Darrelle Revis will have to handle Gage on the outside by himself.
2. Use Screens: The Titans are going to get at Brett Favre. The Jets should utilize screen passes on offense to keep the linemen from turning too far upfield on passing downs.
3. No Careless Throws: If Brett Favre does not repeat his mistake-free performance of last week, the Jets probably cannot win a game of defense and field position.
4. Execute: There is only so much that strategy can do. Both teams' strengths are in the trenches. The one that executes better will win.
Best case Scenario:
The Jets play mistake-free football and ground out a tight win.
Worst case scenario:
The Jets come into this game overconfident after such a big win and come crashing back to earth.
What will happen:
I think I have cracked the code. Every time I pick the Jets to do well, they play terribly. When I expect them to do poorly, they look great. Therefore, I say Favre throws 5 interceptions as the Titans roll to a huge win.